Plot via IMDB:
Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen (Micheal Ward) is a new employee longing to escape the provincial town where he faces daily adversity. Together they find a sense of belonging and experience the healing power of music, cinema, and community.
Empire of Light takes place in and around an old movie palace, named the Empire in a British seaside town during the 1980’s. No, it’s not about the decline of the British motion picture industry, but in someways it’s about the decline of British society into racism, particularly anti immigrant hatred for West Indian Blacks.
Let’s me to try to decode the various metaphors for British decline that director Sam Mendes over stuffs into Empire.
The Empire movie palace has two abandoned screens that have fallen into a kind of shabby glory. On the top floor a once popular lounge is now a roosting place for pigeons. Everything looks tired and defeated. Its American films that are the profit makers. The occasional British film, like Chariots of Fire, are shown to provide occasional prestige.
Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, whose work here is Oscar nominated, bathes Empire in gentle nostalgic tones. Its about as pretty Margaret Thatcher era England has appeared in British cinema.
Yes, the thugs and goons appear for story reasons, but Mendes is content to keep the metaphor to an Olivia Colman playing Hilary, a mid-life lonely woman who has done a few stints in a mental hospital and lives a life filled with isolation and occasional unfulfilling sexual encounters, mainly masturbatory, with the Empire’s theater manager.
The Empire’s staff are a motley crew for the personality types of the Thatcher era reign. There is a nerdy guy, a post-punk girl and the requisite grumpy but wise projectionist played by Toby Jones. The political scapegoat, a black aspiring architectural student, named Stephen (Michael Ward) provides the miscegenation needed for the necessary drama.
Stephen is all modern Britain trying to overcome its colonial past. He aspires to be something bigger than what he is now, a concession worker and ticket taker.
He might succeed if the malcontented skinheads didn’t constantly use him as the plot’s punching bag. His and Hilary’s romance is what the new Britain is violently striving towards, a melding of the old with the new. It’s a union that is doomed to a partial failure. Brexit has to happen.
Movies about movies falter when they strive for something big and grand and political to say. The magical pace of a crew living in 24 frames per second time can’t exist in the faster reality of the modern world. So Empire of Light falters away from the magical grace notes that cinema can provide. It can’t be sweet and gentle, but must be bittersweet, the dream that can’t be sustained once the credits are over and the audience has exited for their cars.
Hilary mental illness is not what Mendes wants to explore. He wants to explore 80s pop music, English poetry, and ultimately the movies. Mendes is not Truffaut or even Fellini. So every statement must be soft focused. Its all candy, Milk Duds and popcorn.
Empire of Light gets a 3 out of 5 or a B-.
- Pippa Harris
- Sam Mendes
- Olivia Colman
- Micheal Ward
- Monica Dolan
- Tom Brooke
- Tanya Moodie
- Hannah Onslow
- Crystal Clarke
- Toby Jones
- Colin Firth
- 3 September 2022(Telluride)
- 9 January 2023(United Kingdom)
Running time113 minutes
- United Kingdom